The goal of police use of force is to gain control over a situation and to ideally eliminate threats posed by an individual to themselves, others, or the police.
Protests in Hong Kong have been ongoing since March 2019. Thousands have been injured during the five-month struggle over justice and sovereignty, in part due to questionable law enforcement practices. Tensions remain high between Hong Kong and Beijing. At the same time, there are ongoing discussions in the U.S. about the closer ties between the military and law enforcement for operations such as patrolling the border. The Hong Kong protests provide a unique opportunity to examine the relationship between policing and military’s use of force in support of law enforcement activities.
A Murder Case Leads to an Opportunity
The situation in Hong Kong ignited when Chan Tong-kai murdered his girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing. Both were Hong Kong nationals visiting Taiwan as tourists. Chan admitted to the murder one month later after returning to Hong Kong. Usually, a criminal is extradited to the jurisdiction where the crime occurred, is tried, and sentenced. In Chan’s case, however, this was not possible because China does not recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan. The “one country, two systems” constitutional principle, put in place after the British government returned governance of Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997, created this jurisdictional gap, allowing Chan to avoid extradition on the murder charge. As a result, the Hong Kong government charged Chan with accessory crimes related to using Poon’s ATM cards, but not for murder.
The case offered an opportunity for China to undo Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous standing. The Hong Kong government proposed the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019. This bill provides a process to evaluate incidents on a case-by-case basis to extradite offenders from jurisdictions where no extradition agreement currently exists. The controversial element of the bill was the inclusion of possible extraditions to mainland China. This was noteworthy given the tension between Hong Kong’s democratic ideals and the autocratic nature of China’s Communist Party. With the Hong Kong legislature “packed full of pro-Beijing loyalists,” passage of the bill appeared likely.
Then came the protests. They began on 31 March when the Civil Human Rights Front organized participants to march in objection to the extradition bill. The number of protesters increased to over one million on 9 June to protest the second reading of the bill by the Legislative Council. By 15 June, the number of protesters increased to over two million. Leaders of the protesters issued demands to the Hong Kong government, including the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, the release of over eleven hundred arrested protesters, and calls for the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.
The Police Respond
Police response evolved from using minimal force to peacefully disperse protesters—a tactic that proved to be ineffective—to employing more aggressive methods (e.g., the use of tear gas, beanbag rounds, and rubber bullets) that resulted in accusations of excessive force. However, such escalation had little effect on the protests, and the violence continued. In July, violent confrontations broke out between protesters, pro-Beijing triad members, and government supporters. The violence continued through August and culminated with increased violent acts by protesters, including creating barriers, throwing bricks, launching Molotov cocktails, and wielding metal pipes. Using these methods, the protestors overwhelmed police in some cases resulting in police running in fear for their lives. Then on 25 August, protestors allegedly pursued a team of Hong Kong police officers, and one of the officers fired a warning shot and others broadly directed their firearms at the rushing crowd. However, despite multiple reporting outlets stating this event, they failed to state the fact that one citizen intentionally ran to the officers and knelt down in front of the officer’s pistol.
The incident broadened the divide between pro- and anti-government elements. Subsequent loyalties sprung up to support and condemn the police. The question is simple: Were police actions justified? Hong Kong police have defended their actions, including the warning shot fired by police on 25 August. Even in a rapidly deteriorating situation, however, the International Association of Chiefs of Police consensus is that warning shots typically do not work and can heighten tensions instead of breaking them. This appears to be the case with the 25 August warning shot, as the Hong Kong situation shows no signs of abating.
Implications for the U.S.
The ongoing protests are instructive for the U.S., as it has experienced its own episodes of rioting and domestic crisis, such as various racially driven events resulting in the president activating the military subdue the situation. Heightened tensions between opposing political groups certainly exist in the U.S., and the possibility remains that some unanticipated event could inflame tensions further, such as the historical example of The Kent State incident on 4 May 1970. Kent State serves as a reminder of the importance of mitigating the risk of the military and law enforcement working together and that their actions must mitigate risk, not increase it. To that end, some insights from Hong Kong are instructive.
Several strategies and tactics should be researched and implemented in order to reach peaceful resolution while considering the contexts in which an event occurs. First, many U.S. cities have forbidden the use of warning shots; however, support for warning shots has increased due to rising security concerns. All police, regardless of jurisdiction, should address several factors before firing a warning shot. For the Hong Kong 25 August warning shot, the police fired during an extremely tense riot involving many people. Warning shots could have very different outcome if there was only one offender opposed to a group. Second, the event happened in China where accountability is reduced. An officer in the U.S. is responsible for every round discharged from their firearm. Third, firing the warning shot in the air is unwise because of gravity. The high population density of Hong Kong increased the probability of the projectile returning to earth and striking someone. Finally, the police officers deliberately pointed their firearms at protesters, some of them unarmed. Western law enforcement agencies train police to never point their firearm at something they are not prepared to destroy.
The goal of police use of force is to gain control over a situation and to ideally eliminate threats posed by an individual to themselves, others, or the police. However, the events that occurred in August (e.g., warning shot incident, strategies used by Hong Kong police preceding the August riots including the use of nearly two thousand canisters of tear gas, beatings in a hospital, failure of plain clothes officers to present warrants and badges) complicated an already tense situation. Geoffrey Alpert, one of the most credible scholars on police use of force, has shown that improper use of force often leads to distrust, erodes confidence, and ruins the relationship between police and the community. The Hong Kong police exacerbated the situation by arresting people who no longer posed a threat, using force on the press who were not involved, and continuing to fire less-than-lethal ammunition into crowds after those methods proved to be ineffective the first time.
If the Chinese government activates its military, the situation in Hong Kong could equate to an insurrection. Closely analyzing the situation in Hong Kong provides insight on how to handle similar situations in a modern era.
The second concern regards the use of paramilitary forces, especially as a deterrent. The Chinese military started to build up across the border from Hong Kong on 11 August. A paramilitary force known as the People’s Armed Police can loosely be equated to a stability policing unit. Stability police conducts activities along the full spectrum of conflict with one of its primary missions being the restoration of public order and security. Some NATO countries have paramilitary units with stability policing skills, particularly within the French Gendarmerie and the Italian Carabinieri. The U.S. military lacks the skills possessed by these countries’ forces to carry out stability policing operations. Whether or not the People’s Armed Police has the skills to restore order to the situation is difficult to determine or predict. They are currently running drills and exercises in full view of the media demonstrating the kinds of tactics they would use.
In addition to the People’s Armed Police, the People’s Liberation Army has a garrison of five thousand troops stationed in Hong Kong. Officially, the Army is not allowed to leave the garrison; however, Hong Kong’s constitution allows them to do so under unique situations. Article 14 and Article 18 of the Basic Law details that the garrison can only be activated at the request of the Hong Kong government. Despite this option, the potential economic repercussions makes the use of military force undesirable. Major General Chen Daoxiang, commander of the Hong Kong Garrison informed David Helvey, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense of Indo-Pacific security affairs, the Chinese military would leave civil affairs to the government of Hong Kong and not get involved.
If the Chinese government activates its military, the situation in Hong Kong could equate to an insurrection. Closely analyzing the situation in Hong Kong provides insight on how to handle similar situations in a modern era. The U.S. has legislation in place that gives the president the authority to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 during times of civil unrest where the local police and mutual aid from surrounding jurisdictions have exhausted all resources and have failed to quell an uprising. The last time the president invoked the Insurrection Act was during the L.A. riots in 1992. However, much has changed in nearly thirty years and a poor strategy or problematic tactics could cause irreparable political and social damage.
American Military Mission
The Department of Defense (DoD) has specific mission set known as the Defense Support of Civil Authority (DSCA). More often than not, DSCA applies to natural disasters or events that are not manmade. Recently, work by the U.S. Army War College’s Homeland Defense and Security Issues Group has been focused on the DSCA subcategory Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Authorities (DSCLEA). As the name suggests, research analyzes the ways the DoD can effectively aid law enforcement during times of crisis.
Key areas to analyze during the unfolding events in Hong Kong would be the role the military plays. The role in the U.S. military’s mission set is purely a support function of civil authority, whether that authority comes from a police officer or another civil servant, and any military commander, regardless of rank, must answer to that civil authority. Furthermore, once local authorities or private-sector organizations have the capacity to fulfill services being provided by the military, the military must cease providing those functions. Interesting data can be gathered whether the Chinese military is a support function or take complete command and institute martial law.
Furthermore, because the U.S. military is limited to a support function, it leaves policing authority to law enforcement, as the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the U.S. military from arresting American citizens. However, the U.S. military could support police forces in the form of intelligence, logistics, and communications support. The Posse Comitatus Act can be interpreted as the government’s respect for the country’s federalist system. The Chinese’ centralized form of government does not have the same respect for local authority and separation of power. This has been expressed by the unfulfilled promises of more democracy in Hong Kong. Given the current governmental policies accompanied by the inability to regain control of the situation, Beijing has determined it will intervene if necessary.
Currently, there is very little research focused on the DSCLEA issue in the DoD. The U.S. is a relatively stable nation with few events that require escalated use of force and resources provided by the federal government. A close eye should be kept on Hong Kong and Beijing’s posturing in the region. Any actions or inactions taken by the Chinese government will provide valuable information on how to determine proper use of force during a crisis that requires a military response in the homeland.
The military posturing outside of Hong Kong is intended to serve as a deterrent to protesters; however, there has been little effect on riots. The current situation in Hong Kong is political and correlates can be made to the United States and our conflicted political climate. American political polarization has increased over time creating the increased probability of similar protests or riots could occur within the contiguous United States that require a governmental response. However, the United States and its military should closely examine how Hong Kong police and Beijing’s strategy and tactics. Effective control of a tense situation can come at serious costs that could be mitigated by superior strategy and knowledge of events like the Hong Kong protests.
Nicholas Blasco is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Homeland Defense and Security Issues Group at the United States Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Arkansas National Guard and Arkansas State Police members participate in a training exercise as part of Operation Phalanx, held at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, March 30-31, 2019. The operation is a joint exercise hosted by the Arkansas National Guard for civil and military organizations to train their members in tactics and techniques used in responding to a civil disturbance.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Matthew Matlock, U.S. Air Force